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Pandemic has led to ‘infodemic’ of scientific literature, researchers warn

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Sept. 11 (UPI) — The rush to conduct and publish research in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to what scientists are calling an “infodemic” — an overwhelming flow of scientific literature, including flawed and contradictory findings.

To make sense of all the new information, and to ensure the most accurate and useful information isn’t drowned out by less discerning research, the authors of a new paper — published Friday in the journal Patterns — argue for both more stringent publishing standards and the use of artificial intelligence.

According to the paper’s lead author, Ganesh Mani, an investor, technology entrepreneur and adjunct faculty member in Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Software Research, accuracy shouldn’t be sacrificed for speed.

“Science is a process and should be a more deliberate process,” Mani told UPI in an email. “Reviewers should get more career credit and that may help with regards to how they prioritize reviews among their other responsibilities.”

“Work needs to be done all around — but especially in media circles — to show prominently the more accurate, current, authoritative ‘facts’ and research over the most popular ones, which is what’s often bubbling to the top these days,” Mani said.

In the months following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientific journals have published more than 8,000 preprints of scientific papers related to the novel coronavirus. During that time, the average time for peer review has decreased from an average of 117 to 60 days.

As a result, the public, doctors and public health officials have been overwhelmed by an abundance of scientific information.

Mani and co-author Tom Hope, post-doctoral researcher at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, suggest machine learning and computer algorithms can be used to filter out less reliable information. Additionally, AI could link together and synthesize the results of similar studies, making the outflow of information during the next pandemic — or similar global challenge — more reliable and digestible.

Mani suggests the infodemic has revealed a variety of problems related to accuracy and reliability.

“Small cohort studies need particular attention,” he said. “Folks should be aware that results might change or be subsumed by larger cohort studies — or when a more representative population is used. Often there are multiple interpretations of data, especially as it’s emerging. Communicating the multiple interpretations can be tricky.”

Problems with scientific review and publication aren’t new, but Mani and Hope suggest the pandemic has exacerbated the situation.

Artificial intelligence can help survey and organize information, but according to Mani, humans must work together to balance the need for speed and accuracy during an infodemic.

A failure to do so, Mani argues, will result in short- and long-term consequences.

“Poor quotidian decisions at the individual level with regards to health, wealth and wisdom,” he said. “Institutions may make longer-term investment and policy decisions that are suboptimal and counterproductive.”



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Ancient trash heaps in Israel show waste management changes among settlements

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Oct. 14 (UPI) — The contents of rural trash heaps outside several ancient Negev settlements suggest farmers during the Roman Imperial Period and Late Antiquity, between the 1st and 10th centuries AD, used livestock dung for fertilizer and as a main fuel source.

For the study, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, researchers analyzed trash mounds outside of Shivta, Elusa and Nessana, agrarian settlements that flourished during the Late Byzantine and Early Islamic periods, from the 4th through the 10th century AD.

By studying the varying concentrations of livestock dung, grass, wood and ash, researchers were able to gain new insights into shifting refuge management techniques and fuel usage among Negev’s early agrarian societies.

“Our findings provide much-needed new insight into community specific responses to social and economic transformations in the Negev during a pivotal time in its history — during the collapse of market-oriented agriculture and ruralization of the urban heartland near the end of the first millennium [AD],” researchers wrote in their paper.

Specifically, researchers found a consistent lack of raw livestock dung in all three trash mounds, suggesting sheep and goat dung fertilizer was vital to large-scale agriculture across the semi-arid region.

“Instead of being disposed of in trash dumps, dung would have been spread in agricultural plots,” researchers wrote.

The discovery of bits of burned livestock dung within the trash heaps outside Shivta and Elusa suggests livestock waste was also used as a fuel source. Woody plant material was scarce in the region. The practice suggests livestock herds were plentiful and household fuel needs did not interfere with field fertilization.

Not all of the livestock dung collected by Negev herders was shoveled into fields and furnaces.

“In sharp contrast to the sustainable use of dung for fuel, and reasonably for fertilizer as well, raw dung was dumped and burned atop the mound outside Early Islamic Nessana,” researchers wrote. “This is the first evidence of its kind from the Negev confirming the management of dung via controlled incineration.”

The sizable layers of scorched dung outside Nessana suggests that by the Early Islamic period, economic disruption had made the practice of dung recycling unnecessary.

“Several of the Arabic documents written after the fall of Byzantine hegemony speak of the difficulties Nessana residents had in paying rising taxes, particularly those levied against farmlands and produce,” researchers wrote.

With large-scale farming on the decline and trade networks crumbling, researchers suspect the market for commercial agricultural products collapses, as did the demands for dung as fuel and fertilizer.

“Nessana appears to have been transforming from an agricultural center into a more rural community persisting from smaller-scale domestic farming, semi-sedentary herding and wild game hunting,” researchers wrote.

The study’s authors said they hope their work will serve as reminder to archaeologists to look beyond buildings and city walls — that important insights into the ancient socioeconomic shifts can be gleaned from refuge.



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Scientists program robot swarms to create art

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Oct. 14 (UPI) — Computer scientists at Georgia Tech have programmed a swarm of robots to intuitively mix colors and decorate a canvas, expanding the technological toolkit available to artists.

Researchers didn’t set out to program artists out of the creative process. Instead, researchers envision their robotic system as a seamless extension of the artist.

“We wanted to explore the potential of multi-robot systems for the purpose of artistic painting, providing artists with an intuitive way to interact with a multi-robot system that abstracts them from the control of the robots or the management of resources,” lead study author María Santos, Georgia Tech computer engineer, told UPI in an email.

The robot swarm — described Wednesday in the journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI — isn’t programmed to dream up new images, but it does problem solve with some level of autonomy.

“The human user, the artist, specifies color concentrations over the canvas, for example, by pressing their fingers on a tablet-like interface,” Santos said. “The color commands are then broadcasted to the multi-robot team, which therefore has information about what distribution of color is desired.”

Cognizant of the available paints and the paints available to their nearest neighbors, the robots coordinate the most efficient strategy for mixing and applying pigments to different regions of canvas.

“As they displace over the canvas, covering the different color density functions, they lay trails of paint by mixing color in the closest proportion to the densities they are tracking,” Santos said. “Furthermore, the assignment of a robot to a particular density is not fixed: robots reassign themselves over the canvas to go after the closest densities at each point in time or those densities they can contribute the most.”

As the artist alters their creative demands, the robots adjust their strategy and execution, accordingly.

So far, researchers have relied on projected light trails to demonstrate the robot swarm’s potential. Scientists are currently developing bots that can actually apply paint.

“This step involves not only developing the hardware necessary to manage paint, but also studying the painting release mechanism needed to achieve appropriate color mixing,” Santos said.

Once researchers have bots than can actually paint, they hope to get their technology in the hands of actual artists and see what they can create.

“Testing it with artists would be ideal, as it would let us see which features in the system are most interesting and potentially unlock new directions for the creative expansion of the system,” Santos said.



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NASA funds Nokia plan to provide cellular service on moon

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ORLANDO, Fla., Oct. 15 (UPI) — NASA will fund a project by Nokia to build a 4G cellular communication network on the moon with $14.1 million, the space agency announced.

That project was part of $370 million in new contracts for lunar surface research missions NASA announced Wednesday. Most of the money went to large space companies like SpaceX and United Launch Alliance to perfect techniques to make and handle rocket propellant in space.

The space agency must quickly develop new technologies for living and working on the moon if it wants to realize its goal to have astronauts working at a lunar base by 2028, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a live broadcast.

“We need power systems that can last a long time on the surface of the moon, and we need habitation capability on the surface,” Bridenstine said.

Nokia of North America received the contract for the lunar communication project. Finland-based parent company Nokia owns the U.S. subsidiary.

Nokia and British firm Vodafone had announced their goal for a moon mission in 2018. They had planned to launch a lander and rovers built by Audi, utilizing a SpaceX rocket.

At the time, the companies said they would set down near the Apollo 17 landing site and have rovers examine the Lunar Roving Vehicle, or moon buggy, astronauts left behind in 1972. That launch never happened, but the new contract breathes life into Nokia’s plans for moon projects.

“The system could support lunar surface communications at greater distances, increased speeds and provide more reliability than current standards,” NASA noted in its contract award announcement.

Having cellular service on the moon could support communication between lunar landers, rovers, habitats and astronauts, said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

“The system would also extend to spacecraft,” Reuter said. “With NASA funding, Nokia will look at how terrestrial technology could be modified for the lunar environment to support reliable, high-rate communications.”

Nokia didn’t respond to questions about the intended landing site for the company’s first mission. NASA hasn’t decided on a landing site for the agency’s Artemis missions, but Bridenstine reiterated Wednesday that the target is a site near water-ice deposits on the lunar South Pole.

The contracts are geared toward NASA’s Tipping Point program, which funds technologies that, if demonstrated successfully, are likely to be adopted by private industry.

“We want to build the [lunar] infrastructure…that is going to enable an international partnership for the biggest, broadest, most diverse inclusive coalition of researchers and explorers in the history of humankind,” Bridenstine said.

Other technologies funded Wednesday include demonstrations of lunar surface power generation and energy storage.

Houston-based Intuitive Machines, for example, will develop a “hopping robot” that could launch and carry small payloads from one lunar site to another.

And Alpha Space, also based in Houston, will create a small laboratory that could land on the moon’s surface and allow researchers to study how the extreme temperatures and radiation affect materials and electronics.

NASA’s 16 women astronauts — at least one likely to walk on moon

Tracy Caldwell Dyson pauses for a portrait in her spacesuit before going underwater in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston on July 8, 2019. Photo by Bill Ingalls/UPI



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